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On language, articulation, and organisational change

An organisation
is a set of conversations between people.
These conversations
are a living system.

By continually changing its language —
and its conversations —
an organisation may continually renew itself

I am increasingly of the view that change management largely consists of navigating what to render explicit and what to make implicit in an organisation.

As Simon Sinek noted, successful and inspired organisations can trace what they do and how they do it to a central purpose — their “Why”. But the “Why” is not enough on its own. Organisations show up in the world through what they do and how they do it.

The work of a company is to translate its purpose into products, services, and customer relationships. The former tends to remain the same, while the latter often changes in response to shifts in the market. How the two relate to each other can either be implicitly understood by the organisation’s members, or explicitly outlined and articulated.

I believe the lifecycle of an organisation alternates between periods when the relationship between purpose and action is implicit, and when it needs to be made explicit so that relationship could be re-examined. This switching between implicitness and explicitness is the process of organisational change.

Take the story of an archetypal start up that achieves success and grows. In the beginning, the founders are brought together by their mission — a single inspired idea. Through their struggle to bring that idea to life, they share a deep, implicit understanding of the relationship between their purpose and the startup’s early products.

But as the start-up becomes successful and brings in new people, this understanding is no longer implicitly shared. As Rands described in his parable of the Old Guard and the New Guard:

Decisions start to happen more slowly, responsibility and ownership become opaque, execution becomes stove-piped, and work is duplicated because the organism has likely crossed Dunbar’s number. Situational awareness has become expensive because learning can no longer occur via osmosis.

The Old Guard
Rands in Repose

The solution is to codify; to introduce processes and workflow and standard operating procedures. In order for the company to change, the New Guard needs to both introduce new language, and also to articulate the ways in which the company’s purpose could be translated into new activities and products.

This is resisted by the Old Guard, whose instincts are “based on lessons from the past rather than the requirements of the future”. This work, as Rands says, “is going to feel heavy and unnecessary to those who’ve historically been able to do this work effortlessly and instinctively.”

Rands’s story ends there. But imagine the company survives and thrives. Over time, those processes and workflows are refined and institutionalised. Instead of being governed by a set of rules, the organisation’s ‘Why’ becomes baked into its infrastructure and its culture. There’s no need to bring out the mission statement every time. Understanding of the company’s purpose once again becomes implicit and embodied.

This, too, is change, but it’s change from within. As the Notes described:

When an organisation changes from within,
it does not redefine itself, or its mission.
It simply seeks to gain greater equilibrium,
to become more efficient at what it already does.

So what happens when the external circumstances change, and the organisation is forced to adapt, say, to digital and mobile transformation? It’ll have to go through the same Old Guard/New Guard process again.

Except this time the system is bigger. It has had more time to become entrenched. The conflicts are no longer between the Old Guard and the New Guard. Instead, those seeking change will challenge the organisation as a system, and will have to alter its language, its ideas of truth, and its identity.

How to do this? With curiosity, and the urge to seek opportunity rather than efficiency, the Notes say.

The source of new language is questions —
questions that spark new conversations,
questions that create controversy.

Ask questions that don’t come easily —
questions that are tough, awkward, even taboo.

Ask unnatural questions.

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